For sports fans, the game matters more than the outcome

Whether their hero loses or wins, fans love to watch his games because of the emotional connect they have

Fans enjoying a game of tennis
Whether their hero wins or loses, fans enjoy the game for the exciting experience

Whether Roger Federer wins or loses, most of us fans love to watch his games. Because he stands for a certain class, certain aesthetics of the game and that's exciting to watch. A new study has confirmed that sports fans root for their hero to win against a villain, but if the game is exciting, they'll enjoy it irrespective of who wins.

The research, recently published in the Journal of Media Psychology, studies emotional experiences, outcome satisfaction, and enjoyment of athletic events, specially ones featuring individuals rather than a team.

Lead author Colleen Bee, an assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University, thinks that the Olympics are a good example of this. In an Olymics event, fans cheer for little-known athletes competing in little-watched sports.

"Knowing something about the personal lives and personalities of these athletes gives the casual fan reason to root for or against someone," Bee said. "The stories matter here. It magnifies the experience of watching the game, and gives people a reason to watch."

In the study, Bee had participants watch speed skating competitions. She ensured that participants knew nothing about the athletes before watching the event. Then she fed participants with one of two fictitious scenarios. In one scenario, an athlete was given heroic qualities such as working with sick children, a commitment to the cause of preventing cancer, and dedicating his performance to his mother. In the second scenario, the athlete was shown having unfavourable qualities, such as testing positive for steroids, arrest for being drunk in public, and being ungracious and inconsiderate.

Participants of the study viewing the game rooted for the heroic athlete and hoped that the "villain" would lose. Yet, she found that all the study participants reported enjoying the game regardless of the moral qualities of the winning athlete.

"There are people who enjoy watching famous athletes compete even though they may not like them personally, or feel like they aren't good people," Bee said. "Yet, because they are exciting to watch, and in many cases because they have an exciting story, sports fans still enjoy watching them compete."

The participants did feel disappointed when the "villainous" athlete won, and similarly relieved when the heroic athlete won, but they all enjoyed the game.

"Casual sport fans often enjoy the experience of a highly competitive event even when the outcome is not desirable, due to the entertaining and exciting nature of suspense," Bee said, pointing to her last study which found that winning or losing games did not matter so much as whether or not the game was close.

Bee is an expert on sports marketing, particularly in the areas of sports and emotions and gender/consumer responses.

Robert Madrigal, associate professor of marketing at the University of Oregon, is co-author of the study.

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